Is Your Gluten Free Diet Providing Enough Nutrition?
Gluten is a protein found in certain grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. It causes severe inflammation of the intestinal tract when individuals with celiac disease consume it. It is very important that people with celiac disease avoid eating any gluten at all in order to avoid severe damage to their digestive tract.
When first diagnosed, many people with celiac disease are dismayed and discouraged at the prospect of eating a gluten-free diet. Many of the foods that are considered stables of the Western diet contain wheat, and therefore people imagine they will end up eating a tasteless, unsatisfying diet. However, a wide assortment of foods, including fruits, vegetables, beans, meat, fish, and dairy are all naturally gluten-free. Most grocery stores today are also offering gluten free breads and pasta. Therefore, most individuals can easily manage to eat a healthy, tasty, and satisfying gluten-free diet. Today, the most difficult part of being gluten free is trying to avoid the endless number of foods that have had gluten added to them during processing or become cross-contaminated with gluten during processing.
Nutrition Absorption Problems
Many people recently diagnosed with celiac disease are suffering from malnourishment due to damage to their intestinal tract. The chronic inflammation caused by consuming gluten prevents the gut from being able to efficiently absorb many nutrients properly. People with undiagnosed or recently diagnosed celiac disease are often deficient in:
- B vitamins (thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, folate, B12)
- Vitamin D
Children with untreated celiac disease can suffer from stunted growth and delayed puberty due to malnourishment.
Nutritional Supplements May Help
If an individual with celiac disease follows a strict gluten-free diet, in most cases the intestines will eventually heal and become able to absorb nutrients normally. In the meantime, it might be a good idea to take dietary supplements. Even after the gut heals, it might be a good idea to take dietary supplements due to the difficulties in obtaining certain nutrients on a gluten-free diet.
A properly and carefully planned gluten-free diet can provide all of the nutrition a person needs. However, many people on a gluten-free diet find they have difficulty in obtaining sufficient amounts of certain vitamins and minerals. The most common nutrients that a gluten-free diet can be deficient in are iron, calcium, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and folate. Many people in the U.S. population are dependent on enriched wheat flour to obtain these particular nutrients. Fiber is also lacking in some gluten free diets, because a common source of fiber in the U.S. diet is whole wheat.
Another nutritional problem with gluten-free diets is that many of the foods marketed as gluten-free are essentially junk food, made primarily out of non-nutritious starches. This problem is slowing going away as the quality of gluten free foods improves. Whole-grain and supplemented gluten free flour products are becoming more widely available.
Iron deficiency is common in the general population as well as in people with celiac disease. Iron deficiency can lead to anemia. Symptoms of anemia include fatigue, weakness, and headaches. The best sources of iron are all naturally gluten free, namely, meat, nuts, beans, and green leafy vegetables. A daily iron supplement can also help boost the body's iron stores.
Calcium is essential for muscle contractions, blood clotting, and bone health. Calcium deficiency in individuals with celiac disease is hard to treat, because it seems to be primarily due to difficulty in absorbing the nutrient from the damaged digestive tract. Many people with celiac disease are also lactose-intolerant, and therefore consuming dairy products is problematic. Sardines, tofu, and some green leafy vegetables are high in calcium. There are many juices and "milk substitutes" available today that have been supplemented with calcium. A daily calcium supplement may be necessary to quickly re-build the body's stores of calcium.
B vitamins are essential for the healthy function of most parts of the body, including the heart and brain. In the U.S. population, many people are dependent on supplemented wheat flour for their B vitamins. Very few gluten free products are supplemented with B vitamins today. However, B vitamins are widely available in many naturally gluten free foods, including whole grains, nuts, meat, vegetables, beans, and fruit. There are also many "health" and "energy" beverages available today that are supplemented with B vitamins. Vitamin B12 is only found in meat, so vegetarians and vegans must obtain this essential nutrient from supplements. Many complete B vitamin complex (indicating that all of the B vitamins are included) supplements are commercially available.
Vitamin D is essential for many health processes, including healing the damage done to the gut by celiac disease. Vitamin D is obtained through the skin after exposure to sunlight. Most people don't expose their skin to sufficient sunlight to manufacture enough vitamin D, and if they did, they'd be at risk of developing skin cancer. However, too much vitamin D is dangerous. Before taking vitamin D supplements, it's a good idea to get tested to confirm a vitamin D deficiency and to discuss the proper dosage to take with a medical professional.
*** CAUTION ***
Unfortunately, many vitamin and mineral preparations are not gluten-free. Many of these products contain inactive ingredients that contain gluten or are contaminated with gluten. Look for certified gluten free supplements. It's also a good idea to discuss nutritional supplements with a medical professional before taking them, especially for anyone who is pregnant, nursing, or taking medications to treat a chronic condition.